Business is business. I really hate this phrase – along with all related variations – and always have. What does it even mean? As far as I can tell, it was created for the sole purpose of providing us with justification for what would otherwise be dubious, questionable or unethical behaviour. In the simple context of ‘it’s just business’ we are all excused for actions we would otherwise feel personally uncomfortable with. If this were not the case – why need such a ridiculous phrase at all? The fact that we continue to champion an ethos made famous by Otto Biederman – and later Michael Corleone – is maddening to me.
We take a module called ‘Business & Society’ on my MBA programme and I am finding the class discussions fascinating. There is a broad spectrum of opinions and mind-sets on the topic of business ethics amongst my classmates – which makes for really absorbing, and revealing, debate. The phrase ‘business is business’ appeared in a discussion on corporate social responsibility last week. It arose as a supporting argument for the position that business should not be expected to have an elevated responsibility in improving our societies; that this would be confusing business and government. Government has a duty to the people, not business – commerce should be restricted to the rules of just that, commerce. We cannot continue to shift responsibility for our circumstances onto other agents.
For those of us on the other side of the discussion, this came as a deeply disappointing response. From a classroom of people with significant educational privilege and opportunity – in a country with a global reputation as a business epicentre – this became the definition of frustration for me. I believe, as many others in my class also do, that there is a uniquely collective power within the parameters of business that could be harnessed to do substantial good in the world. For me, this is at a level beyond the current limitations of our imaginations. We should be encouraged to find ways to revolutionise our thinking around business, beyond the constraints of capitalism, so that we may direct its potent influence to where it is needed most.
Do not misunderstand my meaning. I have enormous respect for the creeds of capitalism and have grown up in a commercially competitive environment – and I too have ambitions that are material. But I also think our world has degenerated to a point of crisis that can no longer be resolved with solely pure motivations. This is a prevailing fantasy of ours that needs to be abandoned. If that were a reasonable possibility, religion could have cured our ailments a long time ago; or government would have created systems that prevent inequality and promote fairness. But both of these ‘pure’ constructs have, over time, become polluted and corrupt. They no longer function to the romantic ideals we have in our minds. For many, their relevancy is declining; just look at the depleting congregations at Church or the abysmal voting statistics. And all the while, an even greater ‘collective’ construct has evolved – wholly impure – that captures the intrigue and interests of people across every possible social and geographic boundary. It has more unitive power than both religion and government put together and yet we continue to separate it from the need in the world. Because business is business.
Ruth Cranks ~ Year 1 Executive MBA